Lina Dencik is Co-Director of Cardiff University’s Data Justice Lab and Reader in their School of Journalism, Media and Culture. Her research interests center on the role of media and technology in social and political change. Anne Kaun is a researcher and lecturer in Media and Communication Studies at Södertörn University, where she investigates media activism, media practices, algorithms, automation and artificial intelligence. Together, Professors Dencik and Kaun recently published Datafication and the Welfare State, a themed collection of articles in the Communication and Media Section (Section Editor: Payal Arora, Erasmus University Rotterdam) of UC Press’s journal Global Perspectives.

UC Press: Thank you for playing a key part in the launch of Global Perspectives!

LD & AK: Thank you for making us part of the launch. 

UC Press: A central organizing theme of Global Perspectives is how globalization has upended not just the ways we live our lives, but also the ways in which researchers such as yourselves study and understand culture and society. How does that orienting principle align with your research?

LD & AK: Living in a globalised world means that we need to be alert to how power dynamics are intertwined in what are often more complex ways than meets the eye. In studying datafication, this is paramount. Most of the dominant technological infrastructures that we rely on today are developed by globally operating tech companies and require a global perspective from the outset. However, there are of course always also national, regional and local layers to global technology infrastructures that are important to disentangle and that help us understand differences in how technology is adapted and adopted. 

UC Press: In this new collection of articles, you’ve brought together numerous authors to explore the ways that datafication—the process by which digital technologies turn our everyday lives into data—are reshaping relationships between states and their citizens, and while posing as value-neutral and primarily concerned with maximizing efficiencies, are in fact undermining the existing welfare state. What are some of the ways this has happened?

” …with the advent of datafication we are confronted with a number of specific values and logics that run counter to those that have commonly been associated with the welfare state, such as social solidarity, universal access, and decommodification”

LD & AK: Technology and information gathering has long been instrumental in the creation of bureaucracies and forms of population management that sustain the welfare state. However, with the advent of datafication we are confronted with a number of specific values and logics that run counter to those that have commonly been associated with the welfare state, such as social solidarity, universal access, and decommodification. In the collection of articles, we see this, for example, in terms of the extensive surveillance upon which datafication relies, often distributed and acted upon unevenly in line with existing social and economic inequalities. As data forms part of profiling, whether in terms of assessing eligibility or predicting risk, there are further concerns about not only the inherent biases and errors that can lead to harmful and discriminatory practices, but also the broader personalisation of risk that can lead to an onus on individualised responses to social problems over collective ones. In the collection of articles, there is also an engagement with the commercial logics that dominate the ecosystem of digital platforms upon which parts of the welfare state depend, and the questions this raises for governance, accountability and democracy. All of these different issues highlight the deeply political nature of datafication as it intersects with the welfare state. 

UC Press: Tell us about the articles in the collection.

LD & AK: The articles are truly illustrating the breadth and depth in which the process of datafication of the welfare state has taken shape. Although they congregate around case studies from Western societies, they situate these within a global context and engage with questions that are applicable to developments happening around the world. The articles unite around an understanding of datafication as a political development that has significant implications for how we think about the welfare state. These stretch across the shifting nature of public service media (Nikunen), the allocation of benefits (Mann), the assessment of the unemployed (Zejnilovic et al.), the construction of population registers (Ustek-Spilda & Alastalo) and the varying regulatory frameworks in different countries (Choroszewicz & Mäihäniemi). Through these different case studies and analyses we are provided with a rich and in-depth exploration of the most recent expressions of how democratic values and state-citizen relations are changing with and through datafication.

UC Press: How has your experience been bringing the collection together? Would you recommend this experience to other researchers?

LD & AK: The idea for the special issue emerged in what feels like a different time now—pre-covid, when it was still possible to travel and meet colleagues in person to brainstorm and develop ideas together. The context for developing the idea for the special issue was a workshop series on datafication, data inequalities and data justice that was funded by the Nordic Councils for Humanities and Social Sciences (organized by Kaarina Nikunen, Rikke Andreassen and Anne Kaun). Very quickly questions of changes in the welfare state emerged especially given that most of the involved researchers are based in the Nordic countries. We both thought that questions of welfare provision and organisation are of course relevant in other geographic contexts as well and opened the call to include more examples and perspectives. 

Since the initial idea until the published issue, the world and our everyday lives have changed very drastically. Crises like the current pandemic have previously been catalysts for change both in positive and negative terms. Ideas of the welfare state developed in connection with the Great Depression and the Second World War. The crisis that we are experiencing at the moment has especially sped up digitalisation and we might see tendencies and developments identified and analyzed in the special collection be deepened and taken further. We hope that the articles provide a good base to consider the deep changes that our societies are going through at the moment. Collecting these important contributions and knowledge has been a privilege for us as editors.

About Global Perspectives’ Communication and Media Section

The “global turn” in communications, advances in mobile technologies and the rise of digital social networks are changing the world’s media landscapes, creating complex disjunctures between economy, culture, and society at local, national, and transnational levels. The role of traditional mass media—print, radio and television—is changing as well.

In many cases, traditional journalism is declining, while that of user-generated content by bloggers, podcasters, and digital activists is gaining currency worldwide, as is the impact of robotics and artificial intelligence on communication systems.

Today, researchers find themselves at important junctures in their inquiries that require innovations in concepts, frameworks, methodologies and empirics. Global Perspectives aims to be a forum for scholars from across multiple disciplines and fields, and the Communication and Media Section invites submissions on cutting-edge research on changing media and communication systems globally.

About Global Perspectives

Global Perspectives is an online-only, peer-reviewed, transdisciplinary journal seeking to advance social science research and debates in a globalizing world, specifically in terms of concepts, theories, methodologies, and evidence bases. Work published in the journal is enriched by invited perspectives that enhance its global and interdisciplinary implications.

Editor-in-Chief: Helmut K. Anheier, Hertie School and Luskin School of Public Affairs, UCLA